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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Best Beth’s

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: I made a brief return to the restaurant-review business this week so I could extol an out-of-the-way place called Elizabeth’s in Pittsfield, Mass.


SEEK THE SOUL OF AN ONION and you’re easily led astray. Its pungency is distracting and can drive you to tears. It tends to reveal its sweetness only under duress. Tom Ellis splits a Spanish onion and opens a world, softening its hemispheres with olive oil and honey before baking its sugars to the fore. It’s culinary homeopathy, resulting in an earth-brown confection, crisp at the edges, releasing flavors you never guessed were there before. As the menu insists: “Guys, a little wine, honest bread and ‘the onion’ and maybe, just maybe, she (or he) will be your baby tonite.” And $7 is a bargain price for a seduction tool.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Tom and Elizabeth Ellis have been helming Elizabeth’s, in Pittsfield, for nearly 30 years, an unexpected eatery on an unexpected street where a compact menu of Italian-inspired fare reflects Ellis’ honest, down-to-earth involvement with his ingredients.

Such as goes into the sausage he makes. “It starts with Berkshire pork, and I add herbes de Provence,” he says. “Personally, I like it spicy, but I tone it down for the customers. You can always add spice to the sauce. You had it with the polenta—”

This I did, a $24.50 dish that would have been overwhelmed by the perfect slice of polenta it sported were it not for the cataclysmic burst of flavor from every bite of the meatstuff.

“—but I usually serve it with a ragout of wild boar and what I call my farmer’s market sauce. I roast red, yellow and orange peppers over low heat until they fall apart, and put that in a sauce with fresh tomatoes.”

Ellis is delightfully outspoken. His Berkshires location has attracted its share of celebrity guests, but I’m sticking to my promise to say nothing of them. There’s no need to. The food here is the star. We merely enter its orbit for a while.

Tom may well be the one who seats you, either downstairs where you can watch the kitchen workings, or in a pleasant upstairs room with unusual artwork on the walls.

Order some wine. That’s where he makes his money. “People who know know that twenty-two bucks is cheap for the kind of food I offer,” says Tom. “Years ago, I made pizza here, what people told me was the most perfect pizza on the planet. The dough would rise three times, I made my own cheese and sauce for it, and it took 40 minutes to bake. One of those pizzas could feed four, and I charged fifteen bucks. I couldn’t make money off it, and too many people were looking for Pizza Hut prices. We decided to concentrate on selling good bread, salad and pasta.”

So the entrée list of ten vegetarian items is priced at $22.50 per, with the meat-enhanced specials going for two bucks more. The night I visited it included a shepherd’s pie that had nothing to do with any prior experience of this dish. The meat was slow-roasted grass-fed beef brisket with caramelized onions and shallots, pine nuts, Turkish oregano, “and caramelized carrots, which gives it sweetness,” says Tom. “Usually we serve it with crunchy rice, but I ran out. That’s why you got it with mashed potatoes.” Which were worked into the dish as a layer. The top, where a shepherd’s pie’s potatoes usually sit, was crested with yogurt.

Hold on—I’ve got only 400 more words for you. Then you can pick up the phone. You’ll probably have to make the reservation for a few days out, as the place is especially busy this time of year. And the seating times are carefully assigned so as not to choke the kitchen, which is staffed by Tom and Elizabeth.

If you look at the reviews on Yelp, that mecca for semi-literate whiners, you’ll see that the chief complaint is from those who couldn’t honor the seating time. Ellis is strict. He has to be. “I take no shortcuts,” he explains. “I need time to make sure the food is prepared right and the people are happy.”

As with the baked eggplant Provençal. “I make sure to ask people if they like eggplant before they order it. Most people think of eggplant as something that’s breaded and fried. Here, it’s baked into the dish, and it’s very light. The mushrooms in there are roasted with caramelized onions, so the mushrooms exude their juice all over it.”

And the soup. You’ll always find a version of his cream of tomato—we had the Caribbean style, featuring coconut milk—“because I get nothing but complaints if I try to take it off the menu.”
According to the menu, pasta Emma features a red sauce “as light as a baby’s smile.” The baked shells with gorgonzola and baby spinach “has been known to make grown women weep.” Linguini alla bagna coada is mixed with anchovies and garlic “and served with a knowing smile.”

But nothing can prepare you for the salad. It’s served family style. Like the excellent bread, it arrives unannounced. Romaine-based, it boasted peaches and feta and watermelon the day of my visit.

“I don’t take any shortcuts,” says Ellis, explaining the brief menu. He excoriates the Food Network-inspired culture of time-delimited competition, with which I couldn’t more heartily agree. It is changing the face of the dining-out meal, destroying the pursuit of conviviality. But the Ellises doggedly continue to craft the kind of experience restaurants were created to provide.
His only complaint? “I wish people would dine later around here. If I could add another seating, I’d have a house in France.”

Elizabeth’s, 1264 East St, Pittsfield, MA, 413-448-8244

Metroland Magazine, 20 August 2015

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